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Health Risks Pose Hurdle for Travel to Mars

by Betsy Querna
National Geographic Today
May 18, 2001
 
Humans may soon be on their way to Mars. But human safety is paramount in space missions.
Depending on its orbit, Mars can be 500 times farther from Earth than the moon. Traveling such a long distance poses health problems never faced before.



Being weightless for the entire mission would cause degeneration of muscles, bones, and the heart. And without a vigorous exercise program, an astronaut would likely experience heart problems because his or her heart would become too weak to pump blood upon returning to Earth and its gravitation.

Another issue that must be addressed is the huge amount of radiation exposure that occurs outside the atmosphere. Gary Marin, director for advanced programs at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), said, "Being away from Earth for three years would mean that every cell of your body would be transversed by a galactic ray, and we just don't know what that would do to people."

Chemically propelled engines, which are currently used for space flights, would not be able to carry enough fuel for the spacecraft to turn around and return to Earth if a problem such as trauma or serious illness occurred on board.

NASA is now looking into ways to deal with some of the physical risks. But psychological problems are harder to solve with technology.

Astronauts would be confined in the spacecraft for most of the mission. As Richard Berendzen, a scientist at American University, observed, "Five or six of your closest friends in a room the size of your living room for three years, that's a tough thing to do."

Scientists have discovered evidence that water may have existed on Mars, and may still be present under the surface. The availability of water is crucial to a mission to Mars because it might help provide the basic elements people need to remain on the planet for an extended period.

"That water is very important to us," said Berendzen speaking on National Geographic Today. "Not only to drill down and drink, but to pump up, break the H2O apart, use the oxygen to breath and the hydrogen for fuel."

The possibility that there is water on Mars suggests that even more intriguing findings may lie ahead. The presence of water is an indication of energy sources, and very likely organic matter.

Berendzen said that if evidence of past forms of life were found, "It would probably be the most stunning discovery in the history of humankind."

While going to Mars would clearly offer a minefield of discoveries, carrying out such a mission at this time has too high a risk for the people who would make such a journey. As research continues, however, the dream of a trip to Mars will inevitably become a reality.
 

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